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Information Literacy: 08. What are Databases?

Strategies used to incorporate research skills for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Management.

What are Databases Video

What is a library database?

Learn what sort of information can be found through library databases and when to use them for research

CLIP video, length 6 minutes)


What Are Databases? And How Are They Useful?


Databases are organized collections of related information or data.  The collections usually cover a specific field of study such as history, biology, or music.  Most online library databases consist of written works published in journals, magazines, or newspapers.  Some databases consist of data, images or specialized information such as government documents. 

Click here to browse through Hatfield Library's databases by document type, or by academic units.


photo of Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Forensic Toxicology laboratory technicians working with lab samples

You should look in a library database if you are:

  • Searching for articles in a magazine, newspaper or scholarly journal.
  • Conducting scholarly research for an assignment.
  • Looking for information on a specific topic.
  • Required to locate a peer reviewed or professionally edited written work.


Anyone can post information and images on the Internet, since there is no mandatory screening process.  Some materials on the free web may have been reviewed by an editor, but most posts have never been reviewed.  Most materials in library databases have either gone through the peer review process or have been reviewed by a professional editor.  You can click here to learn more about peer reviewing.

The free web contains info on any topic, and it can be difficult to find exactly what you need when a web search yields millions of matches.  Library databases are often tailored towards specific audiences, or they deal with a specific subject.  Such as an entire database focusing just on agricultural research or just musical recordings.  This difference makes searching easier by quickly aligning your needs with a focused range that also provides subject expertise.

On the free web, you can find up to the minute information from ranging from celebrity gossip, to tornados touching down, as well as satire or spam.  Lacking a formal review process, people can publish literally anything, without having to tell you what is fiction, and what is real.  When it comes to trusted factual sources, historical information is often not free.  Library databases may contain both older and current information, such as the JSTOR database that goes back in time to the first issue of every participating journal.


Sadly, most scholarly information is not freely accessible, instead you get brief citation info about underlying documents (such as author’s name, publication date, title of publication).  Libraries pay annual subscriptions to access content through databases yielding more than just citations.  Many library databases include the complete actual item, so you can view & download entire articles, books, statistical tables or images.

While the free web typically limits access to information, library database often checks for alternative ways to access an item.  As an added bonus, library databases will usually offer to get an item (through interlibrary loan) if it is not available through immediate electronic access or in print.  And you can do this from any Internet connection in the world.


For many people, searching the Internet is the first step for conducting any research.  But the Internet can quickly overwhelm you with a flood of information.  And there is no screening for reliability.


- Tailored to specific subjects or audiences.

- Research is much easier & it saves time .
- Peer-reviewed or reviewed by professional. editors. - High quality info that is more reliable.
- Prepaid by the library via subscriptions. - No need for out of pocket payments
- Accessible both on- and off-campus. - 24/7 access from any Internet connection.
- Primarily collections of articles & reports. - They usually indicate the literature types.
- Sometimes specialized. - May include newspapers, magazines or book chapters.
- Citation are usually accompanied with abstracts. - Offers short summary of underlying document.
- Linked to the library's catalog.

- Quickly check if the library has access or submit Inter Library Loan request if we do not have it.



Most library databases are targeted at a specific sort of audience, and this can dictate the type of material that you might expect to find in them. Academic Search Premier, for example, covers scholarly journals on must academic topics and is targeted at undergraduate college students, while GreenFile, on the other hand, is aimed at anyone from high school through doctoral degrees but only focuses on environmental concerns.